The Congress must learn its lessons from the Gujarat elections and ensure that the anti-BJP votes don't get splintered, says Shafeeq Rahman.
With the 2019 general election a year away, every state election becomes crucial. So much so that even a small error can have a larger impact on the winning prospects of a political party, be it the Congress or the Bharatiya Janata Party.
Karnataka, which comprises 6 per cent of the total voters in the country, is scheduled to go to polls before May this year. Its outcome would have an impact on the BJP and Congress's preparations for the general elections.
The BJP would like to move one step closer to achieving its goal of 'Congress-mukt' India by wresting Karnataka, while the Congress would pitch all its effort to retain the state to keep alive its hope for status of main opposition party at the national-level.
Being an assembly election, the entire campaign of the Congress would revolve around the incumbent Chief Minister Siddaramaiah. But, simultaneously, it will also be considered as the first test of Rahul Gandhi's leadership after becoming the party president.
The Karnataka election is being held soon after the Congress's narrow defeat in Gujarat and, therefore, presents an opportunity to the party to implement the lessons learnt in its post-election analysis.
The Congress had strained all its muscles to win Gujarat through favourable caste calculations and harnessing of widespread anti-incumbency against the ruling BJP. But the results still went against its expectations.
Besides the numerous explanations for the defeat, the apparent reason was the Congress's incapability to sway the reluctant voters in its favour.
If it had stopped the smaller parties from eating into the anti-BJP votes and stemmed the 'None of the Above' votes, it could have won 16 more seats where the BJP's victory margin was narrow.
An alliance of the Congress with the Bahujan Samaj Party and the Nationalist Congress Party in Gujarat could have carried it to the majority mark with 91 seats in its kitty and the BJP would have been reduced to 89 seats.
On the other hand, the Congress would have lost more seats if it had contested without an alliance with the Bharatiya Tribal Party, with influence in the tribal areas.
This alliance won 17 out of the total 27 Scheduled Tribes (ST) reserved seats.
In Karnataka, during the previous assembly elections, the presence of B S Yeddyurappa-led Karnataka Janata Paksha, a faction that claimed 9 per cent of BJP votes, can be blamed for the saffron party's defeat. This ensured an easy win for the Congress.
However, with the KJP's merger with the BJP, the party can bounce back in the forthcoming elections. It has also taken the influential Badavara Shramikara Raitara Congress leader B Sriramulu in its fold.
If one clubs the 2013 vote share of KJP and BSRCP with that of the BJP, it reveals a different picture. In such a scenario, the Congress would have won only 92 seats, 21 below the half-way mark, while the BJP could have increased its tally to 87, as against its present 44.
This merger had a huge impact on the performance of the Congress and the BJP in the 2014 Lok Sabha elections in Karnataka, with the Congress winning 77 assembly segments against 122 in 2013 while the BJP jumped up to 132 assembly segments.
The 2018 election in Karnataka is a two-cornered fight between the Congress and BJP, but with the notable presence of the Janata Dal-Secular.
The contest in 2013 was three-cornered in 73 and two-cornered in 95 constituencies, which transformed into a bipolar contest in 174 assembly segments and tri-polar in 39 assembly segments during the 2014 general elections.
The two-cornered contest in the 2014 general elections delivered a severe blow to the JD-S which lost 9.22 per cent of its vote share and 25 assembly segments from its 2013 tally.
The BJP was the biggest beneficiary of this fall in the JD-S votes, and increased its vote share by 23 per cent.
The Congress, meanwhile, managed to register a 4.23 per cent increase in its vote share despite losing in 45 segments.
This time, the JD-S could wreck the Congress ship just as the KJP did to the BJP in 2013.
The JD-S has a notable presence in Central Karnataka and Old Mysore regions where its vote share remained above 20 per cent in the previous two elections.
Indeed, it can play kingmaker given the changed equations.
The JD-S realises its ability to spoil the prospects of the BJP as well as the Congress, and therefore is open to an alliance with either party in the state.
Its leaders are simultaneously in talks with the Congress and the BJP.
An alliance between the JD-S and the BJP could be a disaster for the Congress due to the consolidation of opposition votes, while a Congress-JD-S alliance can improve the ruling party's tally and ensure it a second term in office.
Such an alliance would also consolidate the secular votes and strengthen the cause of Kannada regional pride against the BJP's nationalism.
IMAGE: Congress president Rahul Gandhi with Karnataka Chief Minister Siddaramaiah at an 'Indira Canteen' in Bengaluru. Photograph: Courtesy @INCIndia/Twitter.
Shafeeq Rahman is a Delhi-based researcher. He can be contacted at email@example.com.